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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Two Months, 5,000 Miles Later...

The odometer rolled past 5k about seven weeks after I took delivery
It's been two months now since I was handed the keys to my BMW ActiveE from BMW North American  President Ludwig Willisch. Since then I've driven it about 5,300 miles and I have enjoyed every mile. Not long after I took possession I did a post here on my initial impressions. Now that the newness is starting to wear off and I have had a good amount of time behind the wheel, I'm getting a clearer picture of the car's strengths and weaknesses. 


Pre-conditioning. I love preconditioning! The MINI-E was desperately lacking this feature. I work long hours and my car is outside in a parking lot all day. I drive home late at night when the restaurant closes, and during the winter months, my car is usually a frozen brick when I get in it.  The MINI-E would take about a half hour to get the cabin comfortably warm under these conditions, and would use a lot of energy from the battery to do so. With the ActiveE, I simply set the pre-conditioning feature to turn on about a half hour before I leave, and when I get in the car it's toasty warm inside AND the battery is warm which helps to extend the car's range. Honestly after having this feature, I couldn't ever buy another EV that doesn't have the ability to pre-condition.

Eco-Pro mode. I find myself driving in Eco Pro mode just about all of the time now.  If I need a quick burst of power, I just deactivate it for the time being and then reactivate it. It extends the car's range by about 10-15% and in my opinion it doesn't compromise the car's fun to drive factor as there is still plenty of power. There are two things that need to be *fixed* about Eco Pro though, see them later under "weaknesses".

It's a BMW. I'm not all into the status of driving a luxury brand so that's not what I'm talking about. Maybe years ago that meant something to me, but it doesn't anymore. I really don't care if it says BMW or Kia on the hood. I'm interested in how the car drives, how comfortable it is, how efficient it is, and the level of quality that went into building it. BMW has a reputation of delivering on all of these qualities and this being my first BMW, I'm not at all disappointed. It's pretty much what I would expect from a luxury brand, everything feels top notch. It really feels rock solid, something my wife still talks about every time she drives it. It's extremely quiet inside, even for an electric car and that's saying a lot. The fit and finish of the interior is great, the seats are very comfortable and the BMW Connect drive offers useful amenities.

Instrumentation. I really like the instrumentation and how it's laid out. It has all of the things that I like to see, such as the state of charge displayed in a numeric value instead of just a fuel-gauge like what's in gas cars. Some EV's only give you the gas-gauge type of reading and it's just not effective for an EV in my opinion. The ActiveE has one of those also, but as long as I can see the state of charge in a percentage, I'm happy. You can also reset all your efficiency values for every trip you make while keeping your overall consumption (miles per kWh used) in tact. This is good for data geeks like myself that like to see how efficiently they drove every day without resetting the car's overall efficiency values. Also, the large analog gauge that displays if you are using energy(eDrive), gaining energy(Charge) or in glide mode(Ready) is very useful. I can really improve my efficiency by keeping an eye on this gauge and trying to keep the needle as close to 'ready' as possible. Electric cars should help the driver improve their efficiency if they want to and watching this gauge definitely helps me.


It's heavy! The ActiveE, being a converted internal combustion engine car is really heavy. That's partially because BMW needed to add a lot of steel to reinforce the frame to retain its crash-worthiness. When you remove the car's gas engine it weakens the car because the engine is this huge mass of metal that will absorb energy in the case of a front end impact. Plus, the three battery blocks needed to be protected so there is more steel reinforcement. Then add the weight of the 32kWh battery pack and this small coupe is suddenly 4,000lbs! That's just too heavy for a car of this size and the efficiency suffers from it. Having to lug around 4,000lbs plus passengers gets the better of the car and so far I'm averaging about 3.1 miles per kWh used. Plus, when you push the car hard in corners, you can feel the weight - and not in a good way. On the flip side when you aren't driving it hard, the weight makes it feel incredibly stable and rock-solid. Because of this feeling I've called it an "electronic tank".  When the i3 comes out late next year, I expect it to be at the top of the efficiency chart when compared to other EV's. It will weigh about 1,250 lbs less than the ActiveE and have the same motor and electronics. This should help to boost its consumption to around 5 miles per kWh.

Electronic glitches. Since the car launched there have been two electronic glitches that the ActiveE drivers have had to deal with. I know BMW is working on a solution, but for some it's not coming fast enough. I have been lucky and have not had a disabled car stuck on the road that needed to be towed to safety. Others, however, haven't been as lucky. The two problems are very similar. One is the 'transmission malfunction' error and the other is the 'drivetrain malfunction' error. The vast majority of the time when you see either of these error massages, the car will continue to drive and the message will simply go away. On some occasions, if your car is stopped when you get the message or if you are slowing down for a streetlight or stop sign, and you are just about to stop, the car message will display and the car will power down. Again, the vast majority of times you can just remove the key, wait a couple seconds and then restart the car and continue, but some times this doesn't work and you are stuck. I know BMW is working on these issues and hopefully we will see a solution very shortly. It would appear to me this is just a software issue and that there really isn't anything wrong with the car, it's just some kind of sensor is sensing a problem that doesn't exist. I say this because the car drives fine while this is happening and even if it shuts off, when you restart it it performs perfectly. The ActiveE is a small pilot program and issues are expected. We had our fair share of them in the MINI-E program and after a rocky start BMW corrected the issues and we were able to have many months of great, trouble free driving. I suspect the same will happen here. Once the BMW engineers figure out what is causing these issues and they develop a software patch we'll put this behind us. I just feel bad for some of the participants that have had problems with this right form day 1. They haven't been able to drive the car nearly as much as I have and get to enjoy it for what it is; a great electric vehicle.

Eco Pro NEEDS to be the default driving mode. The more I drive the ActiveE, the more I'm convinced of this and I'm not the only one who feels this way. Over on the BMW ActiveE forum MANY other people have written the same thing and there are even threads on this very topic. The way it's currently set up, you need to push a button on the center console to activate Eco Pro every time you begin to drive. You can't just set it so that every time you get in the car it's automatically in Eco Pro mode.  What happens is you forget to activate it and then realize 10 or 15 miles into your journey. This is a problem when you are trying to extend your range as much as possible to make a destination. Sometimes when I have multiple stops, I remember to set it when I first get in the car, but after one stop when I get back into the car I don't remember to activate it again and I don't remember until later along my journey after I've wasted energy driving in regular mode. Eco Pro mode allows you to extend your range and it doesn't really compromise the driving experience so I think really the car should default to Eco Pro mode, but if BMW doesn't want that at the very least they need to make the switch a toggle type so you can set it and leave it on all the time. Or have a setting that the driver can choose what mode the car defaults to. I feel VERY strongly about this and I will hound BMW for the next two years to make sure they change this for the i3. Expect to read me complain about this many times here on this blog for the next year to make certain it sinks in at BMW! ;) The other thing I'd like to see changed with Eco Pro mode is the heated seats do not work when in Eco Pro mode and I think they should. Heated seats use less energy than the cabin heater and I'd rather just use the heated seats when it's cold and turn the cabin heater way down or even off.

Overall the car has been pretty much everything I had hoped it would be. It's fun to drive, very comfortable and I can charge it with the sunlight that reigns down on my roof. What's gas cost these days anyway? I couldn't care less!


  1. Another good post Tom. Keep them coming!

  2. Here we get always something new.

  3. Setting Eco Pro as the default may be a simple software update. I agree 100% that this should be the default mode.

  4. great post, I'm only 4,800 mi behind ;)

  5. Tom -

    I'm an early Chevy Volt owner, having taken delivery of mine in early December 2010 as part of the first batch of 300 that came out of Detroit. I just now read all of your posts here since November and have really enjoyed it!

    I have some experience with default drive modes. The Chevy Volt also has two drive modes: a "Normal" mode and a "Sport" mode. The Sport mode simply changes the accelerator pedal "mapping" -- it makes the accelerator pedal more "touchy" or sensitive. Effectively Sport mode makes the car a whole lot more quick and fun to drive.

    However the Volt defaults to Normal mode; I have to reselect Sport mode every time, and I do. But note this is the opposite from your experience with the ActiveE -- the Volt defaults to the weaker, more efficient mode.

    As I see it, this has actually been a problem for reviews of the Volt. It is AMAZING how few people know about sport mode -- including Chevy salesmen! And that includes journalists, who do entire test drives (and form judgments on performance) based on the Normal mode. Sigh.

    As a performance car company, BMW has an image to maintain, and having the car default to the higher-performance mode fits that. It ensures that an otherwise-ignorant reviewer (or test driving prospective customer) will experience the full capability of the car. From BMW's perspective, it's smarter to have it default to the higher performance mode, and then let the experienced owner change it away from that if they want.

    For these reasons, I think it's wrong to ask for the default mode to be changed. Instead, you should ask for the mode to STAY where you put it, through a power cycle. If you had it in Eco-Pro mode the last time you drove the car, stay in Eco-Pro the next time. But I think even that creates a problem with the test drive situation. So ultimately I think the solution is to make the default configurable in the car's settings menu somewhere, with the default default (!) out of the factory set for the sporty mode.

    By the way, in another post you said that the ActiveE offers far more braking via the accelarator pedal than the Leaf or the Volt. I haven't driven an ActiveE, but that is likely not true for the Volt; the Volt has an "L" mode on the transmission that simply adds in that regen behavior. I drive in L all the time. My previous car was an Audi A4 with a manual transmission, so this behavior was important to me! Another feature that the casual observer misses.

    - Chris

    P.S. Tiny grammatical correction: it's = it is. You make this mistake A LOT and it's distracting from your otherwise fine narrative. You either mean "its" or "it's", and just remember that "it's = it is" (it's a contraction) and you'll be fine. :)

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the comment. I have driven many volts and really do like them so good luck with yours. I've probably driven 200 to 300 miles in volts so I do have a good amount of experience in normal, L and mountain mode. However the regen is much stronger on the ActiveE than in sport mode on the volt, enough so that you really don't need to use the friction brake except for quick or emergency stops. The ActiveE will not even coast down a steep hill without stopping unless you press the accelerator.

      I'd be fine if you could toggle the switch to stay in Eco Pro mode or even have it configurable in the settings, but as it is not is unacceptable. The car performs so well in Eco Pro mode you can hardly notice the difference and the range benefit is very good so I really see no need to default to what BMW calls the regular mode. I also communicate with a lot of ActiveE drivers and literally every one I've discussed this with shares my opinion that the car should either default or stay in EP mode if the driver desires it.

      You're right about BMW being a performance brand and the new i division has its work cut out for it because efficiency has now climbed to one of the top priorities along with performance and luxury.

      As for the grammar, yeah I do make some mistakes I apologize for that. Often I write a post and just put it up without proof reading it. I'm quite busy and many times I'm even at work when I find the time to write something. Honestly, I never imagined I'd be writing to an audience in my life as writing and grammar were never my strong points. This kind of just happened and I do go back and proof read and make changes but a lot does get overlooked. I know the rules, but I can type faster than I can think sometimes :) The funny thing is I recently got a message where someone said they like when I make mistakes because it shows I'm just some average guy and not trying to be a professional writer. That I'm just someone who wants to tell people about what it's like to live with an electric car. That said, I still try to use correct grammar and will continue to work at improving. Feel free to correct me when necessary!

  6. Tom -

    The additional regen in the Volt is not activated by Sport mode. It is activated by the L mode on the shifter. Next time you're in a Volt be sure to try that again -- drive it solely in L mode.

    But from your description that the ActiveE's regen will "stop the car on a steep hill", I now believe that the ActiveE's regen must be much stronger than the Volt's. I would love to have that plus the dead spot in the accelerator travel (what you call the glide mode or "Ready" spot on the gauge) in the Volt.

    This is one of the few things that I think significantly differentiates EVs right now (besides the obvious parameters of motor size in kW, battery size in kWh, etc.). At an EV test drive event last year, I tested every car looking specifically for performance vs eco mode on acceleration, and weak vs strong mode on regen braking. Two different things. The key differentiator is whether the EV allows you to control those two things INDEPENDENTLY. Can you turn aggressive acceleration on and of INDEPENDENTLY of turning aggressive regen braking on and off?

    In the Volt, you can. There are two indepedent controls for A) acceleration mode and B) braking mode.

    In the Leaf, you can not. You either get strong acceleration AND weak regen (D mode), or you get weak acceleration AND strong regen (ECO mode). Aggressive drivers, especially drivers used to manual transmissions, will want both strong acceleration and strong regen braking upon accelerator lift.

    Can you make the regen braking less aggressive in the ActiveE?

    I believe the Mitsubishi i did allow independent control of the two modes. Or the Think. Or the Wheego. I forget, I kind of mash all those little cars together in my mind :)

    There was a brief discussion of this in the Volt fanboy forum a couple weeks ago:

    ... and it brings up a question for you. Do the brake lights light up when you are in regen braking solely due to accelerator pedal lift, when you haven't yet touched the brake pedal? I hope so.

    I love my Volt, but I'm looking forward to my next, higher performance EV :)

    - Chris

    1. Chris,

      No you cannot manipulate the regen and it's basically the same in normal and Eco Pro mode. BMW has made it clear they believe their customers want 'one pedal driving' and a lot of that was based on feedback from the MINI-E drivers. I have driven the volt in 'L' also, I just didn't make it clear in my last comment. I have a few friends with volts so I have had the opportunity to really test them out, plus I had a Volt meet at my restaurant before any volts were sold (November 2010) and the volt Consumer Advisory Board (CAB) members on the East Coast all came and I drove Lyle Dennis's volt for a while also.

      If you live in my area you are certainly welcome to come and drive my ActiveE just to see how it feels. I'm certain you'll be a bit surprised at how strong the regen is and it may even be disconcerting at first, but in a day or so you'll love it, everyone does. I let anyone that wants to drive it do so.
      Yes, the brake lights come on with regen. Not if you slightly back off the accelerator and you only get a little regen, but once you pull back a bit more and the car slows down like the brakes are on the brake lights come on.

  7. Great news on the brake lights! Hopefully the other mfgs will follow BMWs lead on that or there's a federal decel standard in play (ooooh evil government standards).

    I may very well take you up on the ActiveE drive! I'll be in that area in late May. I'm considering renting a Leaf at Enterprise in NYC and then driving it out to western NJ (visiting family), and could stop by Montclair. Thanks for the offer :)

    I do miss my old Audi ...

  8. Have had my AE for 10 days. It took a day or two to get used to strong regen compared to our Volt. But once I learned it I was getting 3.5 miles/KWh on local driving. Went into Manhattan from Ct last week and regen was superb in stop-and-go midtown driving and at rush hour on Westside Drive. Regen almost equalled discharge. Now driving only in L in Volt and range has increased at least 7-10 miles. Dealer never mentioned this regen feature and when I mentioned it I don't think he realized benefit of using L. I really agree that Eco Mode should "stay where you put it" on AE without regard to stopping and starting car.

    1. That's great Bill. I have had some discussions with Volt owners like Chris above. In fact, I just received an email from another Volt owner that read this and wanted to know if I could compare the ActiveE's regen to the Volt's while in L. It's been a while since I've driven a volt. SInce you have both can you give me a ratio to compare, like regen in the volt in L is 70% or 60% as strong as the AE's? Thanks